By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser & Director of the Southeast Asia Program, CSIS
A broadcaster in Christchurch described yesterday as “the darkest day” in New Zealand’s history outside of wartime. It was unmistakably tragic and horrifying, and the people of Christchurch need every prayer and ounce of support you can give them. But as the ground turned liquid, and then shook us all like a menacing dog, as the walls around us crashed down, and the steeple that literally defined the city crashed to earth, a miracle occurred in Christchurch yesterday. The U.S. – New Zealand brotherhood was forged anew in a way none us could have foreseen.
The undefeatable human spirit so perfectly embodied in the proud and resilient citizens of Christchurch was shared by the largest ever official American delegation to visit New Zealand.
We were there in Christchurch for the 4th Pacific Partnership Forum, and meeting of top U.S. and New Zealand officials, business leaders and thinkers. In fact, the day before the earthquake I presented the new CSIS “Pacific Partners: The Future of U.S-New Zealand Relations” (PDF) as New Zealand’s prime minister Key, Foreign Minister McCully and many other members of the cabinet and opposition joined leading Kiwi business leaders, a group of 20 plus future leaders from both countries and a U.S. delegation that led by former senator Evan Bayh and former USTR Susan Schwab, which included great U.S. leaders such as Richard Armitage, Clayton Yeutter, Chris Hill, U.S. assistant secretary of state Kurt M. Campbell, U.S. undersecretary of homeland affairs Mariko Silver and many others. Add to that an eight member congressional delegation led by Congressman Don Manzullo (Republican of Illinois) who chairs the Asia Pacific Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee. That was also the largest U.S. Congressional delegation to visit New Zealand.
This talented and experienced group of people spent a day and a half probing and exploring an agenda named “the power of partnering” presented by the host NZ-US and US-NZ Councils. I could feel the relationship moving in a historic direction, building on strength and moving to overcome the institutional reticence born of a treaty-busting disagreement over nuclear related issues in the 1980s.
Yesterday, the delegates from both countries embarked on a clever program innovation and split into eight groups for smaller more focused luncheon meetings hosted a various venues around Christchurch. Thankfully, the Congressional delegation departed for Wellington after breakfast on the fateful day. But the rest of us fanned out around the city with our hosts. Over 80 souls committed to enhancing ties delving into various aspects of the relationship.
At 12.51 pm, our worlds shattered. Literally. A 6.3 magnitude earthquake epicentered less than 10 km from the city center and only 5 km deep turn stone to rubble and liquefied the ground. At my lunch venue, an architecturally compelling 100 year old bed-and-breakfast off Latimer Square, the chandelier shattered on the table and the walls threw pictures, plaster and bricks as the structure shook violently.
We were lucky to escape. Ambassador Chris Hill, a recently returned U.S. ambassador to Iraq told CNN last night the quake was scarier than anything he’d experienced in Baghdad. What was amazing is that all the delegates, American and Kiwis and spouses and staff, all survived. Many of us walked through rubble and prehistoric ooze to meet at AMI Stadium, the site of the Rugby World Cup Quarterfinals and rallied under the careful guidance of John Allen, New Zealand’s secretary of foreign affairs and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell to get organized for evacuation by the Royal New Zealand Air Force on one of their U.S.-made C-130’s. We all loaded into jump seats and flew to Wellington, with the likes of former New Zealand ambassador to the U.S. shoulder to shoulder with U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Derek Mitchell.
With the practical and intellectual frameworks now in place, the horrific earthquake on February 22 has destroyed a city but not its heart, and it has created a new fraternity of Kiwi and American leaders who are and will ever remain committed to one another, to the relationship and to helping the city and its incredible people to heal, recover and get on with living.
I am thankful to be alive, grateful to all who helped us and committed to working to transform this partnership with my Kiwi brothers and sisters.